Supporting Children and Ourselves Through Unexpected Tragedies: A Guide to Coping and Helping

A father and daughter hug

All of us want our lives and the lives of others to be safe and settled. However, there are times when unexpected tragedies or crises occur in the lives of our friends or acquaintances, or others in our wider community. We may not be directly involved in the event, yet we can be affected too.

Unexpected tragedies can have a major impact on our mental health and the emotional well-being of our children. It can sometimes be difficult to know exactly how to cope and manage.

In this blog entry, our team at Connected Family Project at MCH gives some tips on how we can support ourselves and our children through these unexpected times.

Ways to help yourself first.

  • Talk with people you feel close to and make use of other supports. Talking with a variety of people can sometimes help you to get different perspectives and ideas.
  • Take some time for internal reflection to help make sense of changing feelings and thoughts as they arise. Some people also find it helpful to write or draw their thoughts as a way of 'getting it out there', whether this is shared with others or not.
  • Give yourself time to come to terms with the event. Try not to judge your responses as 'good' or 'bad'.
  • People sometimes find that doing something different that provides some distraction (exercise, music, dance, reading, moves, etc.) also helps. You may find that 'taking a break' from trying to deal with the effects of the event gives you some relief and renewed energy.

After you have helped yourself, you can then help others.

Know the situation.

Check in with yourself first.  Your experience of a community event is likely elevated due to your concern for your children.  Children’s brains are still developing and are not yet built to think through big issues.  Children and teens are most interested in knowing that they are safe and that they are going to be taken care of.  Be prepared to reassure them about ways that you, schools, and other organizations are making sure they are safe.

Be the one to start the conversation.

This shows that you are someone they can come to with questions and concerns and shows them that you are open to talking with them.  Start by asking what your child/ren have heard or know about the situation and how they feel about what’s happened.  Do this by asking open-ended questions like “What have you heard so far about what happened?”  Listen carefully for misinformation or underlying worries.  Gently correct misinformation with clear and simple language.  Be honest at their developmental level about what happened without going into detail.
If you are in a calm enough place, it is okay to let them know you are having a lot of confusing feelings about this.  Calmly sharing this allows children to see caregivers experiencing emotions without evoking fear or anxiety and gives children permission to express their own feelings.

Encourage them to ask you questions.

Be the source of information for them.  Children will seek out information so it is important to get ahead of this and let them know that you will provide them with accurate information and answer their questions. When doing this, think carefully about the message you are providing and allow them to be part of the solution.  For example, when explaining why you may be sheltering in place, let them know that we need to stay off the roads to help police find the person who did this.  This lets them know that they are doing their part in helping.  When a trauma like this happens, children (and adults) may feel out of control.  This helps children feel like they have some control over the situation, and that they are helping.

Most importantly, limit media exposure.

Watching images and hearing stories can be very scary for children (and can increase anxiety in adults as well).  Limit what children are watching, reading, or hearing.  Each time a child hears the story again or watches an image, they get an additional dose of stress.  If your child does watch something, take a moment after to connect with them and ask them what they heard and how they are feeling.  This reminds them that you are a source of support and honesty.  Keep reminding them that it is your job to keep them safe and that you are doing that. Also, pay attention to how much you are talking about the event.  They may hear you and feel increased worry.

Stick to your routines. 

Routines are safe and reliable for children.  Sticking to their routine will be a message of safety for them.

Try to do something fun with them.

Show them that life can still go on in your household and that it is okay to feel joy even amid sorrow.

After any disaster or crisis, families struggle with what they should say to children and how to help them cope. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages parents, teachers, childcare providers, and others who work closely with children to filter information about the event and present it in a way that their child can understand, adjust to, and handle in a healthy way. Learn more about tips for talking to children about tragic events in our blog entry "A Parent and Teacher's Guide for Talking to Children About Disasters and Crisis".

Other Helpful Resources

National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Talking to Children About Terrorist Attacks and Community Shootings

Tips for Educators

Helpful Children's Books

A Terrible Thing Happened: A Story for Children Who Have Witnessed Violence or Trauma by Margaret M. Holmes (Preschool to 3rd Grade)

Once I Was Very Very Scared by Chandra Ghosh Ippen (Preschool to 2nd Grade)

I'm Not Scared...I'm Prepared!: A Picture Book to Help Kids Navigate School Safety Threats by Julia Cook (Kindergarten to 6th grade)

Wilma Jean the Worry Machine: A Picture Book About Worry and Anxiety by Julia Cook (Grade 2nd to 5th)

Want to receive more information like this blog entry from Maine Children's Home?

Sign up for Maine Children's Homes newsletter to stay updated:



* indicates required